There has been a lot of talk lately about the impact that the media can have on the way we feel about our bodies. But what other factors influence our body image?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that a lot of our beliefs about our bodies come from our families. Many of us are aware of this influence on our self-image from the time we’re young. A survey conducted by the Girl Scout Research Group found that 5 out of every 10 girls believe that their families influence the way they feel about their bodies. But are the beliefs we inherit from our families lifting us up – or bringing us down?
Of course, many parents realize the importance of letting their children know how wonderful, valuable, and beautiful they are. But there is more to instilling a positive body image than giving praise. Parents’ attitudes toward themselves trickle down to their children, even if they are careful to tell their kids only positive things.
A Harvard Medical School study found that mothers who over-emphasize concerns about their own weight are more likely to pass on that behavior to their children. Our daughters and sons learn how to be in the world from their parents. So for many adults, their struggle with body image may have little to do with events that occurred in their own lives or the reality of their body weight, and more to do with hand-me-down insecurities.
It is easy to see how comments about weight gain can negatively impact one’s body image. But what about compliments about weight loss? They may actually have a similar effect, because they can leave us with the impression that others are constantly scrutinizing our bodies, and that can make us even more self-conscious. Many women who consider themselves overweight say their mothers make comments when they lose OR gain weight – and these comments aren’t helpful.
In addition, many of us had parents who criticized us for eating “too much junk food,” or who expressed concern over our weight as children. These comments can easily result in the belief that we are not worthy unless our weight falls within a certain acceptable range, or lead to a sense of guilt if we “indulge” in foods we’ve labeled “bad.”
“I don’t want you to go through what I did.”
We may think that children whose parents were overweight might have it easier when it comes to body image, because their parents would empathize and not make them feel like they need to be thin.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Overweight parents often don’t want their children to experience the pressures and judgments that they may have faced. They may encourage their children to stay trim because they genuinely hope for their children to be happy. But that attitude can actually cause children to worry that they will let their parents down if they gain weight or fail to lose it, and that is a very heavy emotional burden.
A lack of emotional support.
Whether it’s parents or spouses, when we don’t feel seen and valued by our families, we may begin to feel like there’s something wrong with us, some fatal flaw that has extinguished our family members’ desire to be part of our lives. If weight has been a source of stress for us, we might assume the fault lies in our physical appearance, and believe that if we can only lose a little weight, our family members will show us the love we deserve. What’s more, many of us turn to food to fill deeper emotional needs that have gone unmet. This can lead to binge eating, which can reinforce our toxic beliefs about our bodies.
The primary message here is that it’s important for us to remember that a lot of our “baggage” around body image has little or nothing to do with us. It may be the remnants of insecurities our family members have not properly addressed. Any messages our families send us about our bodies or our worth are filtered through their own experiences. And if they’ve had emotional trauma that has not been healed, their perspectives are likely to be far from accurate. So sometimes, we need to take the comments and actions of our family members with a grain of salt, and remember that we are inherently valuable human beings, regardless of what our family members say or do.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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